Boise, Idaho -- Two weeks after losing the MAC Championship game and its head coach, the NIU football team earned its first bowl game victory since 2004 with a 40-17 triumph over Fresno State in the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl on Saturday (Dec. 18).
NIU (11-3, 8-1 MAC) used a balanced attack to give interim head coach Tom Matukewicz a win in his first - and for the time being his only - game as a head coach.
With Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren taking over the head coaching duties in 2011, Matukewicz took a moment to reflect on his two-week tenure as head coach of the Huskies.
“When we heard the news [of Jerry Kill’s departure] and when we lost the MAC Championship, and then we found out we had to play right away and refocus,” Matukewicz said. “It couldn’t have felt better. You know, I feel sorry for Fresno State because they hit the perfect storm because I’m telling you, we would run through windows. That’s how bad we wanted it.”
After a tight first quarter, the NIU offense quickly took control of the contest. The Huskies outscored the Bulldogs (8-5) 17-3 in the second quarter and 17-7 in the second half. NIU did not punt once the entire game.
Quarterback Chandler Harnish led the way for the Huskies, rushing for two scores and passing for another. Earning Humanitarian Bowl MVP honors on Saturday, the redshirt junior finished his day with 300 yards passing and 72 yards rushing.
Keeping Harnish upright, the NIU offensive line kept an FSU defensive line that had produced 37 sacks in 2010 out of the game completely.
“One thing we wanted to do is that we didn’t want to drop back in 3rd and 10 situations,” Harnish said. “We did a few times but we wanted to move the pocket and use the draw play and it was just a great mix of play calling and the o-line. I think they played a little under their potential in the MAC Championship game but they showed the country tonight how much better they are than that.”
Though the game ended well for the Huskies, the NIU defense showed an inability to get off the field in the first quarter. The first FSU offensive possession featured three key third down conversions. Capping a 69-yard drive, Ryan Colburn completed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jamel Hamler for the first points of the game.
NIU responded in kind on the next possession, though, when Harnish rushed for a seven yard score. After a failed Michael Cklamovski point after attempt, the score stood at 7-6.
Not satisfied with one rushing touchdown, Harnish put the Huskies ahead for good with a 28-yard quarterback keeper early in the second quarter. Cklamovski put through the extra point to make the score 13-7.
After trading field goals with the Bulldogs, Harnish hooked up with FB Kyle Skarb for a 22 yard score with 57 seconds left in the first half.
The Bulldogs’ two-minute offense brought the ball down to the NIU 23-yard line, but FSU place kicker Kevin Goessling couldn’t connect on a 43-yard field goal attempt; keeping the score at 23-10 going into halftime.
On their first drive of the second half, the Huskies drove down to the Bulldogs’ 32 yard line where kicker Michael Cklamovski booted a 51-yard field goal. A career long for the senior, the field goal was also the third longest in NIU history and the furthest in Humanitarian Bowl history.
Any hopes of an FSU comeback came to an end on the Bulldogs ensuing drive. On a 3rd and 6 from the NIU 8-yard line, Colburn fumbled the ball after being sacked by Devon Butler with 6:18 left in the third quarter.
“We had a good drive going, but they put some pressure on us that play,” Colburn said. “I stepped up and they made a play on me.”
Headlined by NIU defensive end Jake Coffman’s three sacks, the defensive line as a unit produced six sacks on the afternoon.
“They moved all night. They were twisting and doing stunts all game,” Colburn said. “If they didn’t bring extra guys they were moving. They were playing with a lot of energy and I could feel it. I knew I did not have a lot of time to make decisions.”
Limited to 57 rushing yards in the Huskies' 26-21 MAC Championship loss to Miami (OH), NIU RB Chad Spann responded on Saturday with 99 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 15 rushes. Following the Colburn fumble, Spann capped a back-breaking, eight-play, 89-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown run.
"After the MAC Championship game the offensive line came up to me and told me it was their bad that I had a poor night,” Spann said. “Tonight I had a much better night, but it all comes from Chandler’s night. I had a good night and he had a great night, which opened things up for me.”
When asked what kept the team together through a head coaching change and a conference championship loss, NIU center Scott Wedige cited leadership.
“We had some great leadership on this team, I mean we had a ton of leaders,” Wedige said. “The offensive line, we just try to do our job, but these guys made sure that everyone was together throughout this experience and we got it done